READ: Matthew 7:12-20
12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.
14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
“To be is to do”–Socrates.
“To do is to be”–Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra.
The origin of this little triad originated in Kurt Vonnegut's 1982 novel, Deadeye Dick, and has become a regular part of the popular culture. We've all seen it on a bathroom wall somewhere. I confess I've never read the novel, though now I think I may go out and find a copy. But the bathroom-philosopher is actually asking a really important question. What's more important, character or actions?
In verse 12 doing seems to be the crux of the matter. And Jesus seems to be backing that assertion up by saying "this is the Law and the Prophets." And the western evangelical church has used that idea to hold people's feet to the flames on issues of behavior. "Enter by the narrow gate" can only mean one thing: what you do is of primary concern to God, and if you don't behave something awful will happen to you.
Now, recognizing that Jesus may well not have said verse 12 in the same sermon as verses 13-14 or verses 15ff for that matter, there is a reason why Matthew puts these sayings in such close proximity. Just as a pastor may draw excerpts from several places in a book as a Scripture lesson so he can make a point in a sermon, Matthew may well have drawn these three statements together just in the same way Vonnegut does.
Jesus seems headed in the direction of legalism with his offering of The Golden Rule in verse 12 and the follow-up that there is only a very narrow way that leads to life. But then why does he warn us to look out for ravenous wolves masquarading as sheep? Ah! Because, as Bob Dole tried to get the american public to accept in 1996, "Character Counts".
The false prophets of Jesus' day were all about "doing the right thing". They were meticulous in insisting that people follow the law to its last iota. And contrary to popular God-talk, it wasn't that they had missed the "heart of the law" -- that's the kind of thing people say who are trying to wriggle out of any responsibility to the law in their lives. Nor is there a yin-yang to this. It is NOT true that there is a little truth in every lie. Jesus calls these people false prophets because what they were teaching about God was simply false. A narrow legalism without love is not the way of God, nor is a liberalism that allows people to do anything they like and never challenges the behavior because it isn't "loving" to "judge". What we call "character" in modern society turns out to be a kind of worldly wisdom that makes street philosophers into pop icons. To really apply Jesus' words here character doesn't trump action; action doesn't trump character. Neither comes first or is the starting point. Jesus is challenging us to have both and to care more about the Lord and his ways "known or to be made known," as the early Congregational liturgy says, than about anything else.
History is bunk.
-- Henry Ford
Henry Ford is bunk.
Pastoral Relief and Retreat
- Wethersfield, CT, United States
- I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.